European immigrants who came to Halifax after WWII return 75 years later

Click to play video: 'Pair returns to Pier 21 on anniversary of arrival in Canada 75 years ago'
Pair returns to Pier 21 on anniversary of arrival in Canada 75 years ago
WATCH: A pair of immigrants who docked in Canada 75 years ago returned to Pier 21 in Halifax to retrace their first steps in their new home. As Megan King reports, the two men remember their trip aboard the SS Marine Jumper cargo ship in 1948 that brough them to freedom – May 19, 2023

Seventy-five years ago, Matija Sedej and Henrik Ziernfield felt the breeze of the Halifax Harbour for the first time.

The two were passengers on a cargo ship titled the SS Marine Jumper which fled a European continent dealing with the aftermath of the Second World War and arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax on May 19, 1948. The ship originally departed 10 days earlier on May 9 from Bremerhaven, Germany.

On Friday, they returned to Pier 21 in Halifax to commemorate the anniversary.

Ninety-two-year-old Matija Sedej said he left communist Yugoslavia because there was “no future” at the time. He embarked on a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean toward Canada to pursue work opportunities.

“They gave us a chance to come work here (Canada) … it was supposed to be a one-year contract, but I only worked five months on the railway and then we went to the lumber camp up in Thunder Bay,” he said.

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Sedej said he continued to work in lumber camps for the next few months before settling in Toronto. He said the manual labour was “no problem” for him, as he was accustomed to physically-demanding work due to his experience as a farmer back in his home country.

Ninety-seven-year-old Henrik Ziernfeld said he thought Canada was a “wonderful country” upon his arrival.

“Canada was the first county that actually allowed immigrants from Europe to Canada,” he said.

The two Slovenians met through working together in Toronto.

Ziernfeld and Sedej sit at a table reserved for them at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. The two were given a private tour of the museum on Friday.

Ziernfeld described his departure across the pond from Germany in the late 1940s as “quite adventurous,” as the crew faced various challenges along the way including bad weather conditions and sick passengers.

“In the beginning, there was nice weather but once we reached the middle of the Atlantic, a big storm turned out,” he continued. “They (the waves) were like two-storey houses … and then the whole ship started to vibrate.

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“I remember when we first came to Halifax it was very foggy, the ship couldn’t land, so we had to stay out of the harbour for a few kilometres until the next day.”

Marta Demsar, the daughter of another European who voyaged on the 10-day trip across the Atlantic alongside Zienfeld and Sedej, organized the trip to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 for the group of Slovenian Canadians. She said that she had so many questions about her father’s journey to Canada since he passed while she was a teenager.

“That feeling has always stayed with me, that I need to find out more,” she said.

Demsar said in addition to herself and the two men, also present were two women who arrived in 1954 and two daughters of other people who arrived on the SS Marine Jumper. She said it’s “so important” to commemorate the anniversary of this day because Canada gave her father freedom.

“It gave them a new life; it was something they wanted to do, to accomplish with hard work,” she said.

“I just want to share this story with the other 40,000 Slovenians in Canada, because for most of us, this is the story of our heritage. Most of our parents arrived here from 1947 onwards.”

Ziernfeld said the feeling of freedom upon entering Canada is the most pleasant memory from his journey.

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“In Europe, we were always afraid that we might be sent back to Yugoslavia, which is a communist country,” he continued, “and you know what happens, people were badly treated and massacred.

“In Canada, we started a new life.”

Sedej said the people who arrived from the ship 75 years ago have continued to develop a prosperous community in Toronto throughout the years.

“We built two churches, an old age home, we had farms, holiday facilities, and camps — we have about three around Toronto,” he said. “A very successful community.”

Sedej said his memories from 75 years ago seem more vivid during his return to Halifax.

“I feel lucky that I’m here and thankful,” Sedej said.

— with files from Megan King

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